Leif Ove Andsnes, piano: Works by Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin, Playhouse, November 22, 2015.

Photos by Özgür Albayrak.

Photos by Özgür Albayrak.

The supreme talents of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes have long been hailed, and he is now one of the youngest soloists to be inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame (in 2013 at age 43). I have had the pleasure of seeing him on a good number of occasions since his original debut for the Vancouver Recital Society in 1993, and his gorgeous full tone, crystal-clear articulation, and discerning structural insight have resonated in the memory each time. With all the repertoire he has previously covered (including a memorable Winterreise with Ian Bostridge here in 2005), one perhaps wondered what he would bring to the table on this occasion.  Andsnes has turned to Beethoven in recent years and recorded the Beethoven concertos to substantial acclaim; so, yes, he brought a Beethoven sonata.  Recalling his youthful love of Grieg, and his additional interests in Carl Nielsen, he also carried on his Scandinavian quest, this time settling in fairly obscure territory: the piano music of Jean Sibelius.  I am certain that most of the audience had no idea that Sibelius wrote for the piano.  The second part of the programme moved to Debussy and Chopin, which was might appear commonplace except that the pianist has never recorded a full solo recital of the French repertoire and his last recorded foray into Chopin took place as long ago as 1992.  Clearly, there was a great deal to sink one’s teeth into here.

I recall my own first experiences with Sibelius’ piano music. About 30 years ago, in one of my ‘discovery’ moods, I eagerly tracked down some of the volumes of the only integral recording of this music then available, recorded on BIS by Eric T. Tawaststjerna, son of the composer’s initial biographer.  After wrestling with a quite a number of pieces for a month or two, an initial excitement slowly turned to dismay: a lot of the works were juvenilia, but even many that were mature and written pianistically seemed insubstantial.  On the other hand, those compositions that seemed to have real dramatic force appeared better suited to orchestral development, and were essentially not pianistic. So I left this music alone for a long time: in fact, until this concert! 

I admit that I enjoyed the eight little pieces that Andsnes played, all drawn from the latter ‘dramatic’ category, and given authority by virtue of his dramatic poise and commitment.  The works were obviously chosen to complement each other.  The three Op. 41 Lyric Pieces had some fairly detailed passages that took me fleetingly to Chopin and Liszt, but their foundation was essentially naturalistic, and they built with the dramatic contrasts of a ‘symphonic poem’, perhaps more in a Lisztian spirit than like the composer’s own constructions in this genre.  Rich naturalistic effects and folk imagery were present in the Op. 75 and Op. 114 pieces too, but these were sparser in feeling and more atmospheric in design, some of the music quite soft and haunting.  Here one could feel the mythological spirits of the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland.  Andsnes’ treatment was undeniably convincing, bringing a strongly sculpted quality overall, an exactness to the rhythmic figures, and an enticing still to the quieter passages.  When called for, he made the dramatic contrasts very vital and strong.  Interestingly, some of the repeated rhythmic figures in the later pieces seemed to be exactly the figures that the violins would take up in the composer’s orchestral scores; there also appeared to be a touch of Debussy in ‘Song in the Forest’.   I found this artful juxtaposition of pieces appealing.  Put together, they created a certain mystery and intrigue, like taking a trip to a far-away place where expressive symbols mean something other than they normally do, and some dimly-understood underworld is not far off.

Andsnes’ Beethoven Sonata, Op. 31 was even more striking, full of colour and humour, and possibly giving fresh meaning to the work’s nickname, ‘The Hunt’.  This was ‘big’ Beethoven, strong in its contrasts and tonal weight, but absolutely ingenious in the way it brought out a myriad of colourful effects without breaking the line of the music, leaving it still very fluid.  Some of the intriguing ways that the pianist coaxed the complex lines of the work into gleaming coordination really evidenced his astonishing level of pianistic control, and his innovations always seemed to clarify the writing, rather than undermining it.  This was playing of rare balance and tonal beauty.  By the time we had reached the finale, we had seen almost everything, tender and lyrical expression from the one hand, disruptive bass proclamations from the other, little hesitations in tempo – yet it was all so clear, rhythmically astute, and full of joy.  This is not the only way to play Beethoven, and it is perhaps not for all moods, but I assure you that Beethoven’s teacher, Papa Haydn, would have been the first to stand up and lead the applause.   

The brief excursions into Debussy and Chopin after the intermission did not reveal as much, delightful as they were from a programming standpoint.  Nonetheless, the splendour of Andsnes’ pianism was still in force, even if his identification with the idiosyncrasies of the two composers and their respective emotional worlds seemed less complete.    One could hardly help but enjoy Debussy’s ‘La Soirée dans Grenada’ (from Estampes) and the three Etudes chosen: an enthusiastic dose of colour permeated the former and sparkling keyboard control informed the latter.  The four Chopin pieces (plus an extra Etude as an encore) featured mainly deliberative, finely structured playing of considerable beauty and detail, with a particularly strong treatment of the 4th Ballade.  Perhaps I detected a degree of circumspection, the compositions tending to be moved forward methodically without always mining the composer’s little moment-to moment changes in feeling or establishing a consistent emotional temperature. The famous Nocturne, Op. 15, No. 1 had lovely poise and control but I would hesitate to say that it found a tender, aching beauty.  The 4th Ballade combined almost symphonic command with subtle detailing, and was quite overwhelming in many respects.  Still, while its moments of quiet contemplation could not be played any more ravishingly and its powerful moments any more decisively, I would be hard pressed to say that I felt full emotional engagement over the work’s span.  This way of playing Chopin is strong and elegant, but slightly detached, and I would not yet want to compare it with Krystian Zimerman, for example.

It would be difficult to think of more interesting repertoire to put together in a recital than Leif Ove Andsnes gave us here, and the feeling of fresh discovery in the Sibelius and Beethoven made it special.



© Geoffrey Newman 2015